Monique Rhodes

 

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The Ganges, Varanasi, India

 

 

O' Holy Day

When I grew up we had a number of holy days during the year. Growing up as a catholic the traditions of Easter and Christmas made many days feel sacred and holy. I'm down with holy days. I know how they work, I like the thought of having days that are sacred and special so I was excited to know that I was going to be in India during a very holy day which in fact is called Holi. I heard endless explanations of what this particular holiday is all about however the guidebooks describe it as a festival which is celebrating the beginning of spring by throwing coloured water at anyone within range. On the night before Holi bonfires symbolise the demise of the demon Holika. This is a Hindu festival. A lot of people referred to it as the festival of colour. I have to admit that the thought that spring is starting now is hard to get my head around. Each day is already like a hot summers day and I imagine the temperatures are in the late 20s most of the time.

The night before Holi I went into the city of Varanasi and met up with two German friends there. I am staying close by in the more sleepy and quiet town of Sarnath to escape the noise and franticness of the holy city of Varanasi.  While in Varanasi I got my outfit for the following day. It was vital that I was wearing clothes that I could throw in the rubbish at the end of a day of having colour thrown all over me that I had been warned would not come off. Not wanting my hair to remain a shade of pink or blue I also wisely invested in a headscarf. I felt like I was almost ready. But there was one thing missing. Colour armour. Not content to be an observer of this festival I wanted to get right in and partake and therefore purchasing a relatively powerful type of water gun that I could fill with coloured water was going to be essential. When they coloured me I wanted to be able to colour them right back.

Later in the evening my friends and I went and had a meal at a western orientated restaurant and that was where the reality of this Holi festival started to kick in. Far from the warmth and kindness of Easter where we could indulge guilt free in endless amounts of chocolate or be inundated with gifts at Christmas Holi was fast turning into a festival that I was unsure I was happy to be in. The night before Holi, which is a public holiday, I was told the men of India drink copious amounts of alcohol, not something that I have so far seen. I was told also that 10 years ago there were two bars in Varanasi and now there are two hundred. Due their inability in Varanasi to cope with drinking the men become very dangerous, to each other, to women but in particular to western women. There is no law on this evening and the following day and suddenly Indian men who saw that it was 10pm and we were still out became increasingly concerned for our safety. It was hard to believe. Despite receiving endless attention from Indian men I have fundamentally always felt safe here. A large part of that I have put down to the lack of drinking culture that I am used to in other parts of the world. Suddenly I realised I was in a spot of bother.

I called my regular rickshaw driver, Raju. And I asked him to come and get me. He rides a bicycle rickshaw and we had taken 12km, hour long trip between Sarnath and Varanasi a number of times and I had really enjoyed it. He said he was 10 mins away and was clearly concerned that I was still in Varanasi. While waiting for him I was told by a number of other people the extent of what this festival meant in Varanasi. It was seen as being so unsafe in Varanasi for westerners that they were told not to leave their guest houses and hotels on Holi day. With no laws it seems that particularly western women become the target of these men and to my  astonishment I was told of men ripping the clothes off women and stories of a number of western women hospitalised with serious injuries. One man said to me "it gets ugly". It was hard to comprehend. What I did comprehend was the growing concern that I was 12kms from my guests house and it was getting later by the minute and the men in Varanasi had well and truly begun their drinking.

When Raju arrived I was relieved to see him and we set out for Sarnath and the other two girls set out for their guest house in Varanasi. They felt calm and relaxed. We had seen no signs of any trouble. However things changed rather quickly when I started moving through the streets. It was evident that there were already a lot of intoxicated men. As one Indian man had said to me, "do you see any Indian women out tonight? They know how unsafe it it."
As we made our way through the narrow streets of Varanasi all of the warmth and kindness I had experienced in this amazing city was gone and replaced with a bunch of drunk hooligans. The energy was completely different and I had to work hard to keep my concern at bay. I trusted Raju implicitly having spent quite some time with him and he reassured me he would get me safely back to Sarnath.
But things got even beyond what even he could manage and after the third gang of men chased the rickshaw and tried to grab me from the rear of it Raju announced we needed to find a motorised rickshaw to get me back faster. The problem with this was that due to everyone drinking this also meant that many of the motorised rickshaw drivers were also drunk. The first one we came upon scared me. He was clearly inroxicated and Raju and I both knew that it was unsafe on many levels to get into his rickshaw. However once we told him that I did not want to go with him he then chased us trying to get the business. Eventually we found another, sober and with no one else in his rickshaw, another potential danger being another man in a rickshaw when you get in, and Raju and I both felt that this would be ok. I was reminded again that I was in strife when Raju insisted that I call him when I got safely to my guest house so that he knew I had made it.
Which I did and thankfully didn't have to climb the barbed wire fence to get in due it being late and the gates of my guest house being locked for the safety of everyone inside. I did manage to rouse the owner and  finally, with much relief, got myself inside into the safety of my room. It was almost enough stress for me to want a drink myself!

Thankfully the next day was completely different. I woke in the morning and six of us staying this little guest house donned our clothes and armed ourselves with paint and various water guns and made our way into our little town. In Varanasi my German friends told me later they were not allowed out of their guest house. But in Sarnath I had been told things would be safe. So we made our way through the streets of Sarnath being greeted with Happy Holi, handshakes and hugs by endless people who were clearly happy we were out and as the morning progressed covered in colour, we danced with the locals when we came across impromptu dance parties in the street and had countless colour fights with the local kids and adults alike. It was a blast and there was such warmth and obvious joy. Sure there were drunk people but nothing like the energy of the previous night and the women of the town were also visible.

After some hours we returned to our guest house covered in paint and exhausted and then faced the reality of an Indian public holiday which means nowhere open to eat. Eventually we found some street food and for the equivalent of about 70 cents each we ate a delicious meal of samosas and curry washed down with Pepsi. A scary night followed by a really fun day. Holi, I won't be forgetting you in a hurry!

 

Staring down India

Travelling alone as a white female in India is....different. Here, I am completely different, like I have just walked out of the Barnum Brothers Circus thinking I was a spectator and suddenly realising...I am the circus! I am told the blonde hair makes me all the more compelling to stare at. Its good to know these things in advance.  It helps me to muster all sorts of levels of tolerance that I had no idea even existed in me. The struggle, if you tried to fight it, would otherwise become impossible and exhausting.


Here's what it looks like. I go anywhere, in these parts of India that are clearly not used to seeing western women with blonde hair travelling alone, which is pretty much everywhere I have been and these are the things that happen. My rickshaw driver calls out to all of his friends to show them all that he is carrying a western woman. They all stare into my rickshaw to get a good gawk at me as though I do not have eyes that are looking right back at them. Or they spot me from their car or rickshaw and are so shocked at seeing me and so desperate to take as much of me in with the mere seconds they have that they almost drive my driver off the road. Or they yell out to me while I  am walking, "where you frrroom", as though by telling them I am going to receive some special piece of information in return that I could not possibly do without and get rather huffy when after a few days I am bored with this particular line of enquiry and refuse to reply. Or, their all time favourite, they see me, can't believe their eyes and the shock is written all over their face and they casually come by and pretend they have something or someone very important to wait for...right in front of me.  From this positioning, that they usually make in some sort of pack of at least three, they stand and face me and stare right at me like I am literally a tv screen. A human tv screen.  Then finally there is the photo question. So often I get asked if some random person can have a photo with me in it. After some enquiries I am told this makes the Indian person look cultured as they pretend they are my friend and show this photo to their friend to increase their status. I get asked it so often a friend here suggested I start charging. So today I did. The going rate now is 20 rupees a photo. The first person I announced this to laughed. He didn't get his photo despite it being funny. It'll be interesting to see if I manage to make any money...at least if not I won't appear in a bunch of random photo albums all over India!

 

The crazy, crazy Indian concert

I am writing this post from a concert...or is it a rally...or is it a Hindi ceremony? I know you are wondering what on earth I am doing writing from such a place. But the truth is that I'm in my bed and the concert, rally, ceremony thing is in my ROOM. There is a mad man outside screaming into a microphone that is so loud that there is a possibility traces of the sound waves may be reaching people in Honolulu by now. A few weeks ago His Holiness the Dalai Lama was here. I am staying near the grounds where He taught. I think someone forgot to remove the sound system and a crazy Hindi man is in the grounds and has been screaming into a microphone at the top of his lungs since 6 o'clock this evening. It is now 1.45...in...the...morning! Oh please stop. He has so much reverb on the mic that he sounds like a Neanderthal in a cave. Perhaps it would be better if he were. Surely some kind person would have come and smacked him over the head with their club by now.  The sound is completely distorted because he is yelling so loudly that it sounds like 'meaaahhh....yeeeahbusshhhiaaaa...amisheeea...aaahhhmihaaaa....yeeeeaaaaaaarrr...." on and on and on.  I am quite some way from the grounds and still the sound is booming throughout my room. Oh PLEASE stop. I might actually be sick from noise pollution. Is that possible? I FEEL sick. I could be dying. That's a definite possibility. Killed by the sound of a crazy Indian man's voice. See the thing I haven't told you yet is that in between raves this guy is also singing at the top of his voice. I swear he sounds like Yoko Ono on acid...played backwards...in Hindi.  He is being accompanied by a piano accordion, of all things, that seems to be playing in either a different key from him or a different song altogether and someone is bashing on a drum in the same out of time manner that stoned buskers with dreadlocks at the side of the road in Byron Bay do. OH please stop.

Its 2.30am. There seems to be no end in sight. Oh please STOP. I am becoming delirious. He has the lung capacity and stamina of Lance Armstrong. Oh my god, I hear clapping, applause. Oh please tell me it is recorded and no one is actually in front of him, egging him on. The only possibility if they are real people is that they have had their ears amputated. Or their brains have gone into overload and they are actually in a clapping trance. No one in their right mind would choose to be on the same continent as this guy let alone be his groupie! And it is now getting worse if that is possible. Somehow he seems to have enlisted Wing, the completely out of tune Chinese singer from New Zealand who was made into a superstar when she was turned into a cartoon character and featured in an episode of South Park, and she is now singing just as loudly and badly in what sounds like Chinese. Oh PLEASE STOP.  Imagine if they sing a duet!

It's 3.30am. My ear drums have separated from my body. I have relinquished them like a pair of worn out shoes. I have gone into some sort of coma.  I feel like a 15 year old at a Mooney convention. All resistance has gone. I've lost it. There is only one option left... I've started singing along.

 

A sneaky cuddle

This photo is interesting firstly because I haven't seen dogs here interacting with people and secondly because it's a miracle it got beyond the guards with their sticks.

 

Driving in India

Driving in India can be only described as one thing - utterly mad. There seem to be no rules, no restrictions and those who brave themselves behind a wheel or handlebars have refined skills of distance and judgement that I am yet to master. But I am proud to say I have had a go. My guide Tashi was impressed to learn that I could ride a motorbike and insisted I drive to show him my skills. They were lacking. Firstly I was not used to riding a road bike on an extremely uneven, cracked up dirt road as where I am from this sort of riding would be reserved for a dirt bike. Thankfully the bike had reasonably good suspension. Still it had its challenging moments. Once I was actually on a tar-seal road I was faced with another bunch if challenges. Obstacles. These obstacles consisted of people walking in the road, bicycles, other motorbikes, rickshaws (a bicycle ridden with seats on the back to carry people), motorised rickshaws, cars and buses. Oh and I forgot the goats, cows and dogs. And believe me when I say that they are all next to each other on the road at the same time. There is no order but somehow, a lot of the time, it works. It's vital to let go of all preconceived ideas of how to drive. The most important thing to realise is that your side of the road does not belong to you. It belongs to the biggest and loudest. And if that biggest and loudest is coming from the other direction and wants to pass something on its own side of the road, trust me it will. Even if you are coming in the opposite direction.

The second most vital part of driving in India is the horn. It replaces any need for mirrors. As you are approaching another vehicle, person or animal a good honking of the horn alerts them to the fact that you are almost on top of them. And of course the louder and more incessant your horn the more intimidating you become and more room you can take up on the road. The buses have such loud horns I swear I had ringing in my ears from being blasted as they drove by. Not for the faint of heart to ride on a motorbike.

After doing reasonably well for quite some time I ended up admitting defeat and relinquished my position in charge of the bike when a bus coming from the opposite direction literally drove me off the road. But at least I can say I did it! Maybe, this time, once is enough.

 
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